Does Ukraine's best option for the future lie in its past?

Since 1996, Ukraine has switched several times between a parliamentary republic and a presidential one, its current form. Some say that a new swap is the best solution to the political crisis.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
A man plays the piano at the antigovernment protest tent camp in central Kiev on Monday. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returned to his desk on Monday after four days of sick leave, while the political opposition pressed for further concessions to end more than two months of street protests.

As Ukraine’s political crisis begins its third month, many on both sides of the fight see one particular option as the best chance for moving the country forward: reverting back to a parliamentary republic.

But just how Ukraine could legally make such a constitutional change is proving to be as challenging as the other negotiations during the civil crisis that has threatened to further erode Ukraine’s economy and society.

On Monday morning, opposition leaders – Vitali Klitschko of the Udar party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland party, and Oleh Tyahnybok of the Freedom party – announced that they had submitted a constitutional amendment for consideration tomorrow in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament. Passing their version of the bill would mean “canceling the dictatorial powers of the president and transferring to the Ukrainian people through the Ukrainian parliament the right to govern their own country,” Mr. Yatsenyuk was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine as saying.

Ukraine’s Constitution currently puts power firmly in the president’s office, including the ability to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, key cabinet members, and directors of security services.

In talks between Ukraine’s opposition leaders and President Viktor Yanukovych last week, it was universally agreed that changing the constitution to recreate a parliamentary republic – a political system that was instated in 2004 but changed in 2010 – could be a step toward compromise.

President Yanukovych returned to work today after four days of sick leave that many feared was a sign he was backing out of negotiations.

Political revision

If the constitutional amendment passes, it won’t be the first time Ukraine has switched from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic – an indication of the fragility the country’s democratic institutions. The 1996 constitution was amended by parliament in 2004 as part of a political compromise after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, creating the first parliamentary republic.

But in 2010, Yanukovych had the Constitutional Court declare those amendments unconstitutional, and power was returned to the president’s office.

Viktor Medvedchuk, a former parliament member and one-time chief of staff to former President Leonid Kuchma, said last week that reverting to a parliamentary republic could be done by reviewing the “illegal decision of the Constitutional Court” from 2010. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Medvedchuk's current political status.]

“Any other way is a deadlock," Mr. Medvedchuk told the Interfax-Ukraine news service last week.

Medvedchuk’s mention of “deadlock” refers to another method of initiating the reform floated by some deputies and legal experts, which would entail parliament passing constitutional amendments. Critics argue that this process would be arduous and time-consuming, as it would require committees to debate the proposed changes and a two-thirds majority to pass the amendments.

Seeking middle ground

Neither option looks to be easy. There are still those that believe neither Yanukovych nor his ruling majority party, the Party of Regions, will easily let go of powers in the current government setup. Nor, perhaps, would any president who might follow him.

“Normally, anyone who is president doesn’t want to lose his powers; this is also a problem,” says Oleh Tsarov, a member of the Party of Regions. 

It’s not clear if a shift back to a parliamentary republic would automatically mean new parliamentary elections, so the ruling party loyal to Mr. Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, would still hold the majority. In addition, opposition demands for Yanukovych to step down don’t look likely to be met.

“I don’t see any scenarios in which he resigns,” says Taras Berezovets, a political consultant with Berta Communications in Kiev.

Even if the parliamentary restructure passes quickly, it would be only one step and not the final solution to resolving the standstill in Ukraine, says Ievgen Kurmashov, the director of political programs at the Gorshenin Institute in Kiev.

Yanukovych has made it clear that he has gone as far as he is willing to go on making concessions with the opposition, Mr. Kurmashov says. Last week, Yanukovych accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and offered the post to one of the opposition leaders; signed an amnesty law for the hundreds of protestors detained during the demonstrations; and cancelled a set of laws that seriously curtailed the rights of Ukrainians to protest.

The opposition rejected the prime minister’s post and the amnesty law because it was contingent on demonstrators leaving the epicenter of protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, and any occupied government buildings.

Simmering Maidan

Meanwhile, more than 50,000 demonstrators gathered at the Maidan on Sunday to hear opposition leaders renew the call for Yanukovych’s resignation and demand more concessions from the ruling party.

Reports of beatings and kidnappings of protesters continued as the demonstrators accused the government of hiring thugs to carry out their dirty work. One protestor, Dmytro Bulatov, was flown to Europe late Sunday for medical treatment for injuries he said he suffered while tortured for his role in the antigovernment demonstrations.

Anteing up the tension, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry called on the president to clarify what measures he will take to stabilize the situation. Fears persist that the riot police will come in and “clean up” the Maidan at any cost.

Still, there’s also no guarantee constitutional changes will satisfy the crowd on Maidan.

“Any delay, the adoption of half-way decisions, could bring a new, more bloody wave of confrontation between society and the authorities,” Serhiy Mischenko, a parliament deputy, was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine as saying last week. Mr. Mischenko introduced the bill that would give the Constitutional Court permission to begin the review process, which could come up when the Rada goes into session Tuesday.

“The biggest problem is that there is no way out of this, no resolution,” Kurmashov says. “A month ago, we could see a lot of scenarios to resolve this, but the latest events have eliminated them. Both sides have become more radical.”

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